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January 8th, 2010

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07:09 pm - What the Web Doesn't Know . . . About Itself.
Once Upon A Time, Before Internet Explorer, and even Before Netscape, back when the "dot com" was first being invented, the gnomes that invented the internet thought it would be a good idea to have a set of domains that corresponded to geographical locations, in addition to the three-letter domains. By the way, there were originally exactly seven three-letter TLDs (Top Level Domains): the oh-so-well-known .COM, .NET, and .ORG, plus the almost-as-famous .EDU, .MIL, and .GOV. I'll tell you what the last one was later; feel free to guess in the meantime.

For the geographic domains, they used two letters, matching another international standard for coding country names. That's why many British companies are "co.uk" instead ".com," they've registered in the ".uk" geographical domain. Each country can handle what happens to the left of the dot as they see fit. The UK decided to replicate the top-level domains to some degree, using ".co.uk" instead of ".com.uk" for example.

Managing the three-letter domains was subcontracted out to a company called "Network Solutions," which ended up making them very rich before they lost their exclusive license to manage those domains. The .us domain, however, stayed with the Internet's governing body, the IANA. Specifically, the .us domain was managed by Jon Postel and Ann Cooper at USC. They decided to sub-divide the domain, and then delegate the registration duties.

Keeping with the geographic theme, they set up a subdomain for every state, based on its two letter abbreviation. Thus ".wa.us" for Washington, ".or.us" for Oregon, and so forth. Below that would be a city or county name. So, "seattle.wa.us" and "portland.or.us".

They went on to provide standardized codes for official governmental organizations. City government would be "ci" and county government would be "co". So, ci.seattle.wa.us would be reserved for the City of Seattle. The state government would be "state," as in state.wa.us or state.ca.us.

Makes all kinds of sense, doesn't it? If you want to load the web site of your local city government, you can just type in "www.ci.[yourcityhere].wa.us" and go there.

Did anybody ever do that? Absolutely! Try it! Try it with Seattle, Everett, Redmond, Chehalis, Walla Walla (you'll need a hyphen, as in 'walla-walla'), Federal Way (same thing), Blaine, Ellensburg, George, and many others. In many cases, you must include the "www" at the beginning, even though there's no technical reason to not also allow just "ci.seattle.wa.us" to work.

Postel and Cooper also reserved a space for schools, right down to elementary schools. "[schoolname].[schooldistrict].k12.wa.us" was the idea, so a local highschool here would have been "nathan-hale.seattle.k12.wa.us"

Oh, yea, and unlike all those three-letter domains, these domains were free. Well, usually. Postel and Cooper didn't charge for registering or delegation, and it was generally understood that whoever would be handling the subdomains shouldn't charge more than a nominal fee for their registration work. Most companies that handled the subdomains also didn't charge.

So, waaaay back in 1998, I applied for and received the domain "howell.seattle.wa.us". I was actually living in Tukwila at the time, but who else in the country knows where that is?

So, would YOU like a free domain name like mine? Can you still get one? Well, that is a very good question. Eventually, Postel and Cooper realized they had better things to do than manage an unfashionable TLD, so the ".us" domain itself is now administered by NeuStar. Now, NeuStar will be happy to sell you "yournamehereifavailable.us", but their website has nothing about the geographic domain system, except for this oddly erroneous statement: "Formerly the exclusive online province of schools, libraries, states and branches of the federal government, the .US domain of today is the official country code top-level domain (ccTLD) for the United States, and is administered by Neustar." Yea, sure. (1) It was never exclusively for schools, libraries, et cetera, and (2) it has always been the official country code top-level domain for the US.

Further, NeuStar cannot sell you "[whateveryouwant].seattle.wa.us" because they don't have any control over "seattle.wa.us." The "seattle" subdomain belongs to Northwest Nexus. That's who I had to email my domain request form to way back in 1998. NWNexus has never, to my knowledge, had any information whatsoever on their web site about the fact that they're the designated registrar for the seattle.wa.us domain (and many other similar domains, like bellevue.wa.us and centralia.wa.us). I believe they still handle updating the seattle.wa.us domain information by hand, probably because they so rarely get anybody even trying it.

In fact, the whole geographic domain system is sadly neglected, and kind of falling apart, which is too bad, because I certainly think it's better than the alternative. If you enter "ci.ellensburg.wa.us" into your browser, you get to go to Ellensburg's official page. The same is true for Portland, but your browser will first be redirected to an alternative domain that they seem to think is better: "portlandonline.com" What? Well, guess what. "Portland.com" already belongs to somebody else; some corporation in Portland, Oregon. If you try "ci.auburn.wa.us" you get the City of Auburn's web site, but with a "file not found" error. Oops, they forgot to have . . . a home page? What???? You can't even get to their real home page from that page, which is "auburnwa.gov". If you try to visit "www.ci.federal-way.wa.us" you'll be sent to "cityoffederalway.com". Same for Chehalis.

Anacortes is even more mysterious, since going there presents the message "You have arrived at this site because the US Locality domain you are searching for has been given back to Neustar Registry to manage." Anacortes.wa.us wasn't assigned to NWNexus, it was the responsibility of some outfit called "nametamer." Guess they went under or something. The domain name "nametamer.com" now belongs to a company in Troy, NY, but they don't have a web server responding to it, and the name record says it was created in 1996, so the current name owner may have no relation whatsoever to the company that was responsible for anacortes.wa.us.

It's actually kind of scary that this whole system of domain naming, which is clearly still widely deployed, has, in effect, vanished from the Web. Even Wikipedia is nearly mute on the topic; there's a small article about the ".us" domain which mentions in passing that only US citizens or companies can use it, but almost nothing on how one might go about doing so. NeuStar's site is also very terse and quite vague. Even though I know exactly what I'm looking for, I haven't been able to find any other information about these domains. I would never have imagined that the World Wide Web could so completely "forget" about such a gigantic component of its own being.

I'm glad I'm not the kind of guy who believes in conspiracy theories.
Current Mood: nervousnervous

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:January 9th, 2010 04:47 am (UTC)

You forgot something. . .

Thanks for the very interesting and informational post. However, you forgot to tell us what the seventh original TLD was. . . Linda Yaw
[User Picture]
Date:January 14th, 2010 03:33 am (UTC)

Re: You forgot something. . .

Oops! So I did.

3-letter TLD #7 is ".int" It was created to replace the ".nato" top level domain.

It's for organizations of international law and such. Here's two particularly interesting ones:

http://www.iaea.int (although one notices they immediately redirect you to iaea.org, sigh)

[User Picture]
Date:January 9th, 2010 05:24 am (UTC)
The .us domain is sadly underutilized. A domain name with an embedded geographical name usually would be much better as a .us name. For example, "sfsymphony.org" could be "symphony.sf.ca.us" which is easy to remember and type, and less likely to be confused with, say, Santa Fe. However, the latest development I've seen is interesting. Mountain View, California, which is a relatively savvy town when it comes to the internets, now is accessible via "mountainview.gov", which takes you to the same page as "www.ci.mtnview.ca.us". The .gov registrar seems to be getting more friendly and creative. Now if only they had gotten "mountainview.ca.gov" so there would be no confusion with towns of the same name in other states. It looks like there is a Mountain View in Arkansas. But I guess they don't have a Google office.
[User Picture]
Date:January 9th, 2010 05:11 pm (UTC)
I remember noticing during the late 90s that it didn't matter what domain you gave them, people would type whatever.com.

[User Picture]
Date:June 21st, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)

Update: Secrets Revealed

Well, I was getting ready to register a new *.seattle.wa.us domain today, and managed to finally find the "current" instruction manual for doing so. The reason the Interweb has forgotten all this is partially because this document is a PDF file, not a web page. http://www.nic.us/policies/docs/USLocalityComplianceReport.pdf

But Google spiders PDFs! Yes, it does. However, the instructions for how somebody can currently (possibly) register a new domain in this structure consist of a single paragraph on page 27. Section 4.1: Registration. It's very unlikely to show up anywhere close to the top of a google search for this kind of info.

Other reasons why the .us domain is so unknown today are actually spelled out in detail in this report.

Unfortunately, while the report does lay out some fairly reasonable and clear recommendations for re-vitalizing the system, I'm not very optimistic about anything changing any time soon. I suspect that the hold up is related to Neustar waiting for some government agency (probably the Department of Commerce, who currently has ultimate oversight of the domain) to approve things. The report itself doesn't have any date of publication anywhere on it. I downloaded the PDF and checked the metadata: it was released in 2004! One of the recommendations is that there be a centralized registration system.

Currently, there is a link on Neustar's www.nic.us site for locality-based domains, which provides a form for one to fill out and email to the manager of the locality, or you can send it to Neustar and they'll forward it. While the email addresses of the managers for various delegated domains is in the PDF, it is not available on the web site, probably because when Neustar first surveyed what they'd inherited from the previous top-level managers, they found huge swathes of that information had expired or gone bad. You *can* usually dig it up by doing a whois search.

Six years after the report was turned in to DoC, and we're still emailing our registrations to our local registrars? Are you kidding me?
[User Picture]
Date:October 15th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)

Re: Update: Secrets Revealed

I'd like one of these domains myself, but from your description I'd spend more time battering my way through Neustar/Northwest Nexus than I can deal with right now, for reasons you're aware of. If you hear of the process becoming more streamlined, please let me know!

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